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Zeke Cohen - "Young people now have the responsibility to lead in a different direction"

Baltimore councilman weighs in on the importance of helping youths and minorities through education

Zeke Cohen (center) during the fourth Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators

Tomás De La Rosa | 24.10.2017

Education is the key for developing functioning societies, and is appropriately, and necessarily, at the center of political discussion and decision-making at all times. Zeke Cohen, former teacher and education activist, now councilman for the first district of the city of Baltimore, United States, believes current education systems have failed underprivileged children across the U.S. Speaking at the fourth Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators, Cohen believes education should help youths see themselves in a different light.

Recounting how a school he used to teach in physically resembled a jail, Cohen argues, "We need to teach young people how to be citizens, [...] to be fully empowered, to understand that your role and responsibility in this country is to have a voice and to hold government accountable to you, your family, and your community."

Before assuming office in late 2016, Cohen and two fellow teachers founded The Intersection, a youth leadership development, in 2011. They were troubled by the sense of disenfranchisement and disengagement the youth of Baltimore used to have, and decided to focus their work toward underprivileged areas of the city. Now in public office and driven by his experiences as a teacher, Cohen is driven by his belief that young people are the future, and thus must be taught how to lead, arguing, “It's always important to ground ourselves in the work of our youth [...] if they believe in something at heart, they will carry the day.”

At 32, despite being at dawn of his political career, Cohen already has a well-developed vision of the future he wants for his country, arguing diversity provides strength and dynamism. Cohen believes the current U.S. administration has failed to provide support for youths, immigrants, women, people of color, amongst other groups because they are not part of their own base: that of middle aged to older white me.

Despite the current antagonistic environment for causes such as his, Cohen insists recent political events represent an opportunity for young people to truly have an impact on the future of their country, arguing, “Young people now have the responsibility to lead in a different direction. We are being called on, as a generation, to step up and do the work others have not.”

A firm believer of community outreach and representing minorities, Cohen is committed to democracy, a core American value that, in his view, has lost its way. For democracy to work, a lot more outreach must be done as it's not good enough to just say “anyone can show up” because on the majority of occasions it is possible to predict “who” will come. He insists the current state of affairs bolsters this systems, with most decisions in the U.S. being made by middle to older-aged white men. “Democracy should be reflective of the diversity of the constituency that is represented, and so it is critically important that voices at the margins [...] have a seat at the table. [...] We need to do the work of identifying and support people at the margins.”

Surrounded mostly by artists and activists at the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators, Cohen jokingly says he has “no artistic bones in his body.” Nevertheless, he highlights the importance of the discussions in Salzburg because, "It is critically important that the voices of artists and cultural innovators are lifted", as they have the power to reimagine what this planet should look like, examine the current status quo and understand why it is not working.

Cohen adds, “What it's going to take for it [the world] to be better, is forums such as this one, where you have people from all over the world, shapes, sizes, and backgrounds, coming together to lift up our commonality and shared humanity. What I want to take back from this forum, [...] is a renewed sense that when people come together great things happen.”

The Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators IV is part of a ten-year multi-year series. This year's program is supported by the Albanian-American Development Foundation, American Express, Arts Council Malta, Cambodian Living Arts, Canada Council for the Arts, Edward T. Cone Foundation, Fulbright Greece, Japan Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, Adena and David Testa, and the U.S. Embassy Valetta, Malta. More information on the session can be found here. More information on the series can be found here. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram by using the hashtag #SGSyci.

Tomás De La Rosa